In the mid-’70s, stunned into conservation by the Arab oil embargo, the
state of California set efficiency standards for refrigerators that seemed, at
the time, revolutionary: By 1988, the U.S. government followed. Appliance manufacturers
screamed and balked, but the government held firm. Over the decades, the standards
have been continually revised, spurring refrigerator manufacturers to find cheaper,
leaner ways to keep consumers’ perishable goods cold, and the market has thrived.
According to a report by the National Energy Policy Development Group in 2001,
refrigerators now use anywhere from one-quarter to one-third the electricity they
did 30 years ago.
In 2005, as pump prices float over $3 a gallon, as evidence mounts of climate change brought on by carbon emissions, as respiratory illnesses from asthma to cancer rise due to smog-forming vehicle exhaust, the U.S. Congress wrote and the president signed an energy bill free of government-mandated standards for increasing fuel economy and reducing traffic-generated pollution. Once again, Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards were beat down by a powerful lobby of oil producers and auto manufacturers who are well-served by the politicians whose campaigns have benefited from their largess. It is a ritual that has been repeated nearly every year since 1975, when those standards were first drawn up. As a result, Americans now drive millions more cars, burn billions more barrels of fuel and spit millions more tons of toxic chemicals into the air than they have at any point in history. And the auto manufacturers still aren’t happy.CAFE standards were introduced in 1975, when President Gerald Ford answered OPEC’s embargo with a conscientious effort to reduce the U.S. economy’s dependence on foreign oil. They were, at the time, modest and graduating standards: 18 miles per gallon in 1978, 26 in 1982, 27.5 in 1990. Congressional delegates from New York to California have struggled to raise them ever since.Which brings us back to refrigerators: In more than three decades of regulation, no one representing Maytag, Amana or the chlorofluorocarbon industry managed to stand in the way of progress. When the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete The Ozone banned CFCs in 1987, President Reagan was the first world leader to personally approve the measure (perhaps, as one theory goes, because he had suffered from skin cancer). But politicians with their fortunes tied to the oil-and-gas industry, from Montana’s Ron Marlenee in 1991 to Missouri’s Kit Bond in 2005, have successfully beat back earth-saving regulation that might affect the industry’s fortunes, from international treaties against global warming to rules for more efficient cars. And thanks to them, CAFE has essentially been stuck for 20 years.As a mandated standard, CAFE has been neither terribly complex nor unsympathetic to economic progress: It simply rates the weighted average mpg of an auto manufacturer’s entire fleet for a certain class of vehicle: For example, if a company like, say, Rolls-Royce were to produce 10,000 luxury passenger cars burning 15 mpg, it would have to offer for sale an equal number of passenger cars burning at least 40 mpg to meet CAFE’s requirements. If Rolls-Royce fails, it pays a fine.Sometimes that fine is not so bad: European luxury-car makers routinely pay fines of up to $27 million a year with little complaint. But most of the big domestic companies have never paid a penalty. Nor have the Japanese: In 1983, Toyota’s CAFE for passenger cars was 33.3; Honda’s was 36. Interestingly, so was Ford’s. By 2005, however, Ford barely nudged over CAFE’s pathetic limit with a fleetwide average of 28.3 for domestic and imported passenger cars.Ford has been allowed to do much worse, of course, when it comes to CAFE’s other category, light trucks. When the 1975 Energy Policy Act separated such vehicles out from the passenger car, it was a sop to small-business owners, who Republicans claimed could never afford the high-tech vehicles the industry would be forced to produce if strict efficiency standards were passed. Back then, light trucks made up just 20 percent of the vehicles on the street. Now, since automakers have figured out how to tack a passenger car onto the back of a pickup truck and come up with a new class of vehicle, light trucks — in the form of Cadillac Escalades, Lincoln Navigators and Ford Expeditions — account for 50 percent of the vehicles on the road.Unlike passenger cars, light trucks were never subject to government-mandated goals for fuel economy. It was left to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to establish the “maximum feasible standard,” beginning in 1979. And if passenger-car CAFE standards have risen only moderately, the light-truck fuel-economy standard has barely budged at all: From 1976 to 1979, the standard rose from 17.2 to 20.7. In 2005, NHTSA raised it just a wee three-tenths of a point. By 2007, the NHTSA says, automakers’ light-truck fleets must hit an average fuel economy of 22.2.But after that, all bets are off: In some twisted logic of the boardroom, the NHTSA in 2008 will introduce a new standard based on the weight of each vehicle. Really heavy light trucks will not have to meet the same fuel-economy standards as light light trucks, thereby discouraging automakers from struggling to meet CAFE standards by making smaller cars. This is because, according to the NHTSA’s own studies, 46,000 people have lost their lives in traffic accidents because of smaller and lighter vehicles inspired by CAFE standards. Fuel efficiency equals death. It’s an equation beloved by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute, but it stupidly omits one factor: In the majority of those fatal crashes, a smaller car was hit by an SUV — often one that rolled over. The NHTSA’s new rule will undoubtedly make it all worse: If it exempts heavier trucks from new fuel-economy standards, automakers will simply make heavier trucks. Were it not for CAFE’s light-truck loophole, however, soccer moms would likely be safely ensconced in station wagons as sleek and efficient as their Energy Star refrigerators.What does CAFE mean for air quality? Cars and light-duty trucks in the
U.S. are responsible for nearly 20 percent of annual U.S. emissions of carbon
dioxide, or 5 percent of global CO2 emissions. (California has passed a law requiring
a 22 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by the year 2012, which the
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and other industry-tied groups are fighting
as hard as they’ve fought every other attempt by California to clean its air.)
Fuel economy matters when it comes to smog-forming compounds, too: Ozone is formed
when nitrogen dioxide and hydrocarbons hit sunlight, and while the impact of fuel
economy on smog-forming NO2 is downplayed, the Toyota Prius has been designed
in a way that reduces NO2 emissions by a whole order of magnitude. If we all drove
hybrids, nitrogen-fed smog would virtually disappear.
But forget hybrids: At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory, professor John Heywood has provided a comprehensive directory of technological fixes that could increase fuel efficiency in cars and trucks — not with hydrogen, not with electrical components, not even with hybrid technology, but with improvements to reduce friction and maximize efficiency in the plain old internal-combustion engine. Follow his rules, and we could all be driving 40-mpg SUVs, contributing far less to ozone-forming and climate-warming emissions.It’s enough to render all arguments against higher CAFE standards — and closing the SUV loophole — moot: Contrary to the bleating protests coming out of the auto industry, better fuel efficiency costs little. Unlike an increase in the gas tax, it does not disproportionately target poor and lower-middle-class drivers — who, in public-transportation-starved and natural-disaster-prone U.S. cities, may consider cars a necessity for survival. And it requires no great technological leaps: Henry Ford’s original Model T, after all, got 25 miles to the gallon. Back in those days, the 200 refrigerators on the market kept perishable goods cool with the help of gas so toxic it could kill those pioneering consumers if it leaked out into their kitchens. Surely the auto industry can do better than Frigidaire.
In the mid-’70s, stunned into conservation by the Arab oil embargo, the